Tax collector climbs tree
He was passing through the city of Jericho when a notorious tax collector by the name of Zacchaeus took the trouble to climb a tree to get a good view of the visiting celebrity.
Imagine his surprise (and everyone else’s) when Jesus stopped below the tree, looked up into the branches, and spoke to the despised but wealthy man. ‘I want to spend the day with you at your home’, he said.
Change of heart
This caused some problems for the onlookers, who knew that Zacchaeus was a turncoat, working for the occupying Roman authorities and robbing his fellow Jews in the process! Naturally enough, they questioned the wisdom of a religious leader like Jesus associating so openly with such a renegade.
Zacchaeus’ response, however, was equally unexpected. He announced publicly that he would give half of his considerable possessions to the poor and reimburse fourfold any he had cheated out of money.
As those who stood by wondered at the amazing change in Zacchaeus, Jesus explained what had happened – ‘salvation has come to this house’. Then Jesus used Zacchaeus’ change of heart to illustrate what he himself had come to do, namely, ‘to seek and save what was lost’.
Jesus had sought Zacchaeus and found him. Then he had saved him, producing a revolution in his life. It was as simple as that.
But in what way was Zacchaeus so ‘lost’ that he needed Jesus’ salvation? In modern day terms, Zacchaeus had done quite well for himself. Jericho was a major administrative centre and Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector. He had risen to the top of a lucrative profession.
Collecting taxes for the Roman Empire, he had accumulated personal wealth by overcharging his hapless clients. But so what? Today he would no doubt be classed as a local lad made good, and any dodgy business would simply make him a more colourful character. A modern Zacchaeus would never consider himself lost, because today success is measured by material wealth and possessions.
Yet Jesus considered Zacchaeus lost! Why? Because the fixed point from which he had wandered was not some physical comfort zone but God. As the prophet Isaiah declared: ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way’ (Isaiah 53:6). We are all ‘lost’ by nature, says the Bible, and we all need to be found (or saved).
Many think they can find their own way back to God but they can’t. If a person is lost, he or she has wandered too far to be able to see where they have come from. By definition, anyone who is lost doesn’t know how to get back.
Jesus is simply saying that it is his business to seek out those who cannot find the way back to God, and show it to them. Zacchaeus had realised he was lost and had discovered a way back to God in the person of Jesus Christ. He gladly took it.
There is a lot of benefit in knowing we are lost, because then we are ready to be found – to hear the direction Jesus gives us: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6).